Since its post-war heyday as a seaside getaway, Great Yarmouth has seen its fortunes decline.
Depleting tourist numbers, joblessness and social deprivation have taken their toll on the resort that Charles Dickens referred to as “the finest place in the universe” in David Copperfield.
In May, Great Yarmouth Borough Council approved a masterplan to regenerate the ailing town centre. The blueprint outlines six key projects to transform the town by 2025 into a destination where people want to spend more time and money. By persuading private sector partners to deliver new commercial and residential developments, the council hopes to restore the town centre to its former glory.
So what are its chances of success?
Although Great Yarmouth still attracts 6.5 million visitors a year, who spend a total of £580m, few venture beyond the seafront and the heart of the town has been largely ignored. Prime retail units lie empty, old guest houses have fallen into disrepair and a lack of investment has led to a fatal leakage of spend and footfall.
“Great Yarmouth is one of the most successful coastal resorts in the east of England, but the town centre has really suffered,” says Sheila Oxtoby, chief executive of Great Yarmouth Borough Council. “The two empty shop units that used to be home to BHS and Marks & Spencer reflect how tough the retail market has been here, with the impact of online shopping and the fact that many people choose to shop out of town or in Norwich.”
She adds: “At the same time, people have changed the way they holiday. Once upon a time, they would stay a week in a bed-and-breakfast in the heart of the town. Now, breaks tend to be shorter and with the arrival of holiday parks such as Haven, they don’t spend so much time and money in the town itself. We felt the need to intervene.”
It is a move that has been welcomed by the town’s property fraternity.
Daniel Bycroft, director of Great Yarmouth agent Bycroft Commercial, says: “Producing the masterplan is a really positive move. The town centre is in a pretty poor state and we need to take action.”
Key projects outlined in the masterplan include concentrating the town centre’s retail offer around the Market Place. Great Yarmouth’s markets are focal points for the town, yet are in clear need of investment. The council is about to start procuring design work for a scheme that is likely to include a fixed-stall market, which could accommodate a series of outdoor events. Oxtoby expects the project will cost the council about £2m.
The council hopes its investment will encourage private sector partners to come on board and help diversify the town centre offer. The masterplan also highlights the need to incorporate more leisure provision within what was once the prime retail pitch. It envisages that by 2025 the heart of the town centre - around the junction of King Street and Regent Road - will be home to a mix of leisure operators.
“Our ambition is to get a cinema in the town centre to create a night-time economy and help attract decent restaurants, cafés and bars,” says Oxtoby. “We’re flexible about where they go but have identified a site at the back of King Street car park. We own the land and hopefully that will make the proposition more appealing.”
Jonathan Newman, who manages the Great Yarmouth Town Centre Partnership and the BID, believes the town’s retail market has sunk to its lowest point and hopes to see a return to growth in footfall by the end of the year.
He says the town centre needs to diversify its offer and a cinema would be a big draw. “Leisure is where the real opportunity lies given the number of tourists. With the golden sands and the Norfolk Broads, we’re in a great position - we just need to offer people more reasons to come to the town centre.”
However, if the town centre is to function effectively it cannot rely solely on tourists. For year-round sustainability it must be valued by locals as somewhere to live and work as well as to shop and be entertained. The council envisages that by 2025 one of the town’s key streets, The Conge, will accommodate around 400 residential units with commercial space on the ground floor. The units will line both sides of the lower half of the street, close to the railway station.
Over the next six months, the council will assess the viability of the proposals and analyse the type and tenure of units that will be most suitable. It will then look at public funding options and seek a development partner.
Oxtoby says: “We own a significant amount of the land and it’s a perfect location for residential development linking the station to the marketplace. It’s likely to appeal to people wanting to commute into Norwich. Having more people living in the town centre will give it new vitality and boost footfall.”
Bycroft says that if the council recognises the need to accommodate existing businesses along The Conge, residential development with the right public sector support could prove viable. “The residential value base is relatively low but we’ve seen a positive trend in pricing and there is a lack of supply,” he says.
Having more people living in the town centre will give it new vitality and boost footfall - Sheila Oxtoby, Great Yarmouth Borough Council
Oxtoby is confident other key masterplan projects will help ensure the town is an appealing proposition to residents, visitors and investors alike. Proposals include creating a better sense of arrival, investing in the historic Rows linking different parts of the town centre together and regenerating buildings facing Hall Quay.
To make all this happen, the council will need to persuade the private sector that Great Yarmouth is a place worthy of investment. It is working with adviser Carter Jonas on assessing key projects and presenting development opportunities to the market.
Oxtoby says the council is willing to bid for public sector funding from sources such as the local economic partnership and the Homes and Communities Agency to help kickstart development and is aware that as a major landowner, it has leverage over land values.
In a bid to raise the profile of the investment and development opportunities, a team took the masterplan to Mipim and Revo and has had initial discussions with cinema operators and residential developers, Oxtoby says. “I’m not sure Great Yarmouth is yet on the radar of many developers and leisure operators, but we have come away with a list of parties that want to continue conversations with us and arrange visits to the town.”
Dr Steve Norris, head of regeneration, retail and town centres, at Carter Jonas, admits that Great Yarmouth will have to work hard to find partners. “The council is having to be very proactive,” he says. “The days when a local authority presented a site, held a beauty parade and left the developer to get on with it are long gone.”
Norris has been advising the council in various roles for more than 10 years, producing retail and town centre studies, before helping draw up the masterplan.
“It’s not easy promoting town centres when out-of-town development is often seen as a cheaper and easier option,” he adds. “You can’t deny that half of Great Yarmouth’s market is in the sea and it has always been in the shadow of Norwich. Yet it’s got a strong tourist offer, there’s the pull of the seafront and new industries promise employment growth. With strong leadership and cross-party support, it could be that the stars are now aligned.”
The prospect of attracting higher-value jobs to the town will certainly help its development credentials. The borough is now promoting itself as England’s offshore energy sector capital, at the forefront of £39bn of energy investment over the next 20 years. Other growth sectors, such as oil and gas decommissioning, promise to boost the local economy further.
Yet it remains a challenge to reverse years of decline. “There’s been very little investment this side of the River Yare and we feel awfully lonely,” says Mark Duffield, director at Great Yarmouth agent Aldreds. He claims there is developer appetite for out-of-town development to the west of the river but says the town centre has been largely overlooked.
When it comes to plans for the cinema, Duffield says it would be a welcome addition to the town centre but questions whether there will be operator demand for a location where so few people choose to spend their time and money. “The council is trying very hard to be aspirational, but it’s difficult to succeed when you’re trying to buck a market,” he says. “I love the town, but it’s got real problems.”
Oxtoby remains upbeat. “We’ve got to be realistic about the timeframe but over the next 10 to 15 years I’d hope Great Yarmouth would have a thriving marketplace and strong visitor and night-time economy. Far more people will be living in the town centre and it will offer a pleasant environment where people want to spend time.”
Her message to the development industry is clear: “Come and visit us and have a conversation. We’re open to new ideas and there are plenty of opportunities for us to work together.”
Whether investors and developers can be attracted to a town that has suffered decades of decline remains to be seen, but with a proactive council so determined to bring about change, it is well placed to reverse its fortunes.